When Gerald Reich, MD—who goes by Gerry—started working in the emergency room of Torrance Memorial Medical Center in 1978, a dozen eggs cost 48 cents, a gallon of gas was 63 cents and Jaws 2 beat out
Grease as the top-grossing film of the year. Dr. Reich spent more than 3½ decades there, doing what he modestly calls “problem-solving”—caring for the wide range of health crises, from the simple to the life-threatening, that come through the ER.
“What we do in the emergency room is handle problems,” explains the 67-year-old Dr. Reich (pronounced “rich”). “That’s all we do. [Patients] wouldn’t be there if there wasn’t a problem, and we’re the problem-solvers.”
He finds it ironic that some of those with the most severe problems—patients who were unconscious when they arrived at the Torrance Memorial ER—probably have no idea who their doctor was. “The people I’ve helped the most have no recollection of who I am,” says Dr. Reich.
On August 1, 2014, after nearly four decades in emergency medicine, Dr. Reich retired from “problem-solving,” hanging up his scrubs and his title of medical director of the emergency department at Torrance Memorial to spend time with family and on the golf course. But getting the ER out of his system hasn’t been as easy as simply walking out the door.
A few days into retirement, Dr. Reich was golfing and realized he’d forgotten his phone; he asked to borrow his wife’s to call the ER and leave his number in case they needed him. “Then I realized I don’t have to do that anymore,” he says. “I guess it’ll take a while to get out of that habit. It’s in my blood.”
Being a doctor is quite literally in Dr. Reich’s blood. His is a family of physicians: Both his parents were doctors, as is his brother, Harry Reich, MD, who pioneered the laparoscopic hysterectomy. Two of Dr. Reich’s four children are also doctors. Daughter Kellie is an OB-GYN, and son Michael is in medical school.
At 6 feet, 8 inches tall, the native of Wyoming, Pennsylvania, was certainly hard to miss in the Torrance Memorial ER. (He jokes that when friends are trying to decide where to meet, they simply say, “We’ll meet at Gerry.”)
And yes, he does play basketball. He was good enough, in fact, to have played college basketball at Franklin & Marshall College and to have considered a professional career in the sport. He opted instead for medical school at the University of Tennessee, in Memphis, with a residency in emergency medicine at the University of Louisville, one of the first schools in the nation to offer an emergency medicine program.
“When I started working in ERs, the guy who did the CAT scans was on call. So we’d lose important time waiting for him to get there, and we had to make decisions without as much information,” recalls Dr. Reich. (These days, of course, a CAT scan technician is always available.)
When he and his wife, Peggie, decided to move to Southern California in 1978, they chose Rancho Palos Verdes for its good schools and relatively smog-free locale. Not long after arriving, Dr. Reich got a job working in the emergency department at Torrance Memorial Hospital. He became a partner in the group and, within a few years, medical director.
“My job used to be, to be the best emergency physician I could be,” says Reich. “Then my job was to hire people better than me. At that, I have been wildly successful.”
Over the years Dr. Reich has learned that there are three things patients need more than anything else from a physician when they come to the ER: a doctor who’s competent, who’s caring and who makes them feel special. “If you convey those three things to a patient, they feel they’ve been well taken care of,” he says.
Dr. Reich’s attitude of caring made him a natural with kids. He routinely greeted young patients with a high-five and explained what was happening to them in terms they could understand. “Injections and sewing don’t have to hurt,” he told them. “If you build trust, they’re OK. If they’re little kids, then they learn they don’t have to be scared of the doctor,” says Dr. Reich, who also coached soccer, basketball and Little League baseball over the years.
What will he miss most in retirement? “The satisfaction of helping people and the camaraderie of the ER, of working with other doctors and staff to solve people’s problems,” he says. We’ve never turned a patient away. All you had to do to be seen in my emergency department was show up. That’s all it took. We took care of everyone, gave them the best care we could. I’m proud of that. In 1986, it became a federal law that if you show up in an emergency room, they have to stabilize you. But I was here for eight years before that, and we never turned anybody away.”